Did you realise that there are no less than four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Central Portugal, all less than an hour’s drive from each other? These remarkable buildings contain tales of Portuguese history dating back to the the earliest days of Portugal as a country.
With the Knights Templar, battles that shaped history, a legendary love story and Portugal’s oldest university there is plenty within their walls to satisfy any cultural travel enthusiast.
Click on a link to jump to a specific World Heritage site in Central Portugal
University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia
I’ll start with the closest to my home and heart, the University of Coimbra. It’s also the most recent addition to UNESCO’s Cultural World Heritage List for Portugal, having been awarded World Heritage status in 2013.
Alta – Upper Coimbra and the original university
Portugal’s first university was founded in 1290 by King Dinis, whose statue welcomes you to the campus in Alta da Coimbra (Upper Coimbra). In the early centuries of its existence, the seat of learning shifted between Lisbon and Coimbra a couple of times before settling once and for all into the Alcaçova Royal Palace in 1537 thanks to King João III.
One of the most spectacular buildings within Coimbra University is the Baroque Joanine Library, built in the early 18th century. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful libraries in the world with over 200,000 volumes, protected from insects by a resident colony of bats.
Other remarkable places to visit in the World Heritage University of Coimbra are the colourful St. Michael’s Chapel, College of Jesus and the beautiful ceremonial rooms and arms room.
Tip: If you are visiting independently, you have to buy the ticket in person, which can mean queues at peak times so I would go earlier in the day if possible in high season. The ticket office is in the Biblioteca building on your left just before Porta Ferrea, the ancient arched entrance to Paço das Escolas.
Tip: You don’t need a ticket to go into this courtyard and, if the university is open, you can enter some of the hallways to see the azulejo panels lining the stairwells and corridors. For the best views of Coimbra, you can buy a €2 ticket to go up the clock tower.
If you want to visit the library, you’ll need the full €12 ticket. Entry is restricted so be prepared to wait for the next admission time (usually every 20 minutes). Full details of the various visit and ticketing options are on the university website.
Sofia – Downtown Coimbra (Baixa)
The prestigious hilltop university soon outgrew its initial space and took over some of the disused convents in the lower part of Coimbra. Most of these buildings are near or along Rua da Sofia, which is why the UNESCO attribution includes Sofia.
To get to downtown Coimbra from Alta on foot, it’s best to make your way via the Machado de Castro National Museum, which is well worth a couple of hours of your time.
Continue downhill past the Romanesque cathedral, Sé Velha and then down the steps to Rua de Quebra Costas. Once through the Almedina archway and on the main shopping street, turn right and keep going until you hit Santa Cruz church (pictured below).
This interactive map shows you which of the buildings in Coimbra’s Baixa area are classified as World Heritage.
For more ideas for what to do in Coimbra, see this article.
Tips for visiting the remaining UNESCO sites in Central Portugal
If you want to see all four World Heritage sites (more details about the others below), I wouldn’t recommend doing them all in one day – it would certainly be too much for my poor tired brain to handle.
My suggestion would be to spend a few nights in Coimbra and use that as a base for exploring the surrounding areas in addition to these historical treasures.
Without a car, an easy option would be to take the train to Coimbra from either Lisbon or Porto then use a guided tour to visit the remaining three UNESCO sites. Go Walks Portugal will give you a 5% discount on their full day UNESCO sites tour from Coimbra if you use my code, JULIE5, when booking.
If you have a car, you could visit the other 3 World Heritage sites on your way to and from Lisbon, e.g. Alcobaça and Batalha on the way north and Tomar on the way south. I’ve included suggestions for places to stay in the other three towns in case you prefer a different base from Coimbra.
Tip: If you plan to visit Convent of Christ, Alcobaça Monastery and Batalha Monastery on your own, buy a combined ticket for €15 at any of the sites. It’s valid for 7 days so there’s no need to cram them all into one day. Normal entry to these sites is €6. Discounts apply for seniors etc.
If your thirst for history would be satisfied by just seeing one or two of these World Heritage monuments or you are simply short on time, I’ve also provided details of organised tours from Lisbon that go to the specific sites below.
Batalha Monastery World Heritage Site
From the outside, this golden-coloured Gothic structure is wondrously decorated with carved stone motifs and stained glass windows. Once inside, the high vaulted nave of the main church seems relatively austere until you enter the Founders’ Chapel where the tombs of King João I and Phillipa of Lancaster take pride of place.
After winning the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, King João I promised to build Batalha Monastery to thank the Virgin Mary for the Portuguese victory over the Castilians.
It took more than a century, 7 kings and 15 master architects before work finally stopped. The Unfinished Chapels are just that – while the lower part of this octagonal mausoleum is incredibly detailed and beautiful, the ceiling remains missing. Its frilly Manueline doorway was the highlight of Batalha Monastery for me.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier explained the presence of the uniformed soldiers we saw wandering the cloisters. They guard the tomb inside the Chapter House, which has an astonishingly wide dome for a vaulted ceiling. There’s also a military museum and gift shop housed in the former kitchen.
Open from 9 am to 5:30 (or 6:30 from 1st April to 15th October). More information on the official website.
Tours from Lisbon that include Batalha
If you don’t have time to visit all four of Central Portugal’s UNESCO sites, you can see Batalha Monastery as part of a day trip from Lisbon. You’ll also get to visit the famous sanctuary at Fátima, the wide sandy beach at Nazaré and the beautiful medieval town of Óbidos.
This full day small group tour operated by my partners, Cooltour Lisbon covers al of these things. Check availability and book online
Click on any of these to get more details and check availability:
Where to stay in Batalha
The town of Batalha is quite small but it’s not a bad spot for breaking your journey or even basing yourself while you explore the Silver Coast, Leiria and Fátima, as well as the Serras de Aire e Candieiros.
If you fancy spending a night or more here, these are my top picks of the hotels in Batalha.
If they don’t suit you, check out the other hotels and accommodation in Batalha.
UNESCO Alcobaça Monastery
Until we reached Batalha’s Unfinished Chapels, I had been comparing it unfavourably with the 12th century Cistercian monastery at Alcobaça. Now I’m not so sure which monastery I prefer but if you really pushed me to choose one over the other, I’d probably still go with Alcobaça.
I may not be much of a romantic (Mike will confirm this) but even I couldn’t resist the heartbreaking tale of everlasting love that is embodied in the tombs here.
Prince Pedro and Inês de Castro were desperately in love but kept apart by royal politics, plus the fact that he was already married. But even after his wife’s death, his father, King Afonso would not allow them to be married, although they wed in secret.
Long story short, even after his father had Inês killed, Pedro’s love burned strong and after wreaking revenge on her assassins he had matching tombs commissioned to be facing each other. The idea being that when they awoke in the afterlife, the first thing they would lay eyes upon would be their beloved.
There’s more to Alcobaça Monastery than these decorative tombs, of course. We particularly enjoyed seeing the narrow refectory door that prevented monks from getting too fat and the massive chimney in the kitchen. The Room of the Kings gives an interesting overview of changing royal fashions over the centuries and the arched dormitory space is the most unusual I’ve come across.
Open 9 am to 6 pm October to March, 9 am to 7 pm April to September. Official website
If you want to include Alcobaça in a one day tour from Lisbon that doesn’t bother with Fátima, check out this full day tour of Alcobaça, Nazaré and Óbidos.
Where to stay in Alcobaça
Alcobaça is another pleasant town that would make a good base for exploring this part of the Silver Coast and Central Portugal. Read more about Alcobaça Monastery and other things to do in town in this article.
If you like the sound of staying overnight, here are my Alcobaça accommodation suggestions:
Solar Cerco do Mosteiro is but a couple of hundred metres from the monastery yet it has all the charm and character of a country house and its own orange grove in the grounds, as well as a swimming pool. Four poster beds, beamed ceilings and spacious rooms are typical features and there’s free parking on site. Choose a room, suite or apartment with monastery views.
Challet Fonte Nova is romantic, stylish and delightful and a great example of what a small luxury hotel should be. There are rooms in the historical chalet and a new wing. Free parking, charming gardens and an onsite spa add to the appeal. See photos and check availability.
Vale d’Azenha Rural Hotel is midway between Alcobaça town and Nazaré. If you prefer a modern hotel in a rural setting with an outdoor pool, mountain views, this is ideal. Choose a room with balcony or private villa.
Convent of Christ World Heritage Site in Tomar
I never tire of visiting the hilltop Convent of Christ, especially now that I know more about its history. Back in the early days of Portugal as a country, the Knights Templar Christian soldiers played a significant role in defending and regaining territory from the Moors.
Coimbra was the capital city at the time and this castle in Tomar became the headquarters for the knights as they helped push the border southwards towards Lisbon.
The castle keep was one of the first such military defence towers in Portugal. However, one of my favourite parts of the Convent of Christ is the Charola, a circular and very ornate chapel with arched entrances where, so I was told, the knights would ride in and meet on horseback. True or not, I like the image.
As with most ancient churches and monasteries, the Convent of Christ was embellished over the years, especially during the late Gothic and Manueline period when Portugal was rich from the spoils of the Age of Discoveries. Among the most striking of these additions are the ornate entrance to the church, the giant belt buckles and the window of the chapter house.
Allow a good couple of hours to fully explore all the nooks and crannies of this fascinating building.
Tip: Wear comfortable, sensible shoes as the path to the convent is uneven.
Open from 9 am to 5:30 pm October to May and until 6:30 pm in summer months. Official website
Tours to the Convent of Christ
If you’re not able to visit Tomar on your own or with the Go Walks World Heritage tour from Coimbra (see above), you could visit the Convent of Christ and other key sights in this area on a guided tour from Lisbon. Choose from:
Where to stay in or near Tomar
Again, this small, attractive town has plenty to offer as a base and is popular with people who relocate to Portugal.
The best place to stay is probably the 4-star Hotel dos Templarios on the bank of the River Nabo. With all the comforts you’d expect from this class of hotel and an outdoor pool, the service is great and rooms are spacious. Check availability and prices.
If that’s beyond your budget, the clean, bright and comfortable Thomar Story Guesthouse might be more suitable. Free parking (a short walk from the premises, air conditioning and a central location add to the appeal. Grab a room.
If you have a car and want to be in the countryside, Quinta da Anunciada Velha is a cosy farm stay just a couple of kilometres outside of Tomar. Beds are painted in traditional Portuguese style with flowers. There’s An outdoor pool and plenty of indoor and outdoor spaces to relax. Choose between rooms or an apartment.
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